So you want to write a pop-sci book, Part 2: The value of blogs

Written in Stone

Blogs, as Carl Zimmer astutely noted at this year’s ScienceOnline conference, are software. Despite all the hand-wringing over whether science bloggers can or should replace science journalists the fact of the matter is that science blogs are the independent expressions of a variety of writers about subjects which they feel passionate about. There is no single science blog archetype that all blogs must fit, and this flexibility allows science writers the freedom to compose and promote their work in an increasingly fragmented media landscape.

Hindsight being what it is, of course, I can look back now and see that I ended up doing the right things for the wrong reasons. I started science blogging in the autumn of 2006, a few months after I was inspired to write what would eventually become Written in Stone, but at that time I was just having fun. I loved writing about science and discussing ideas with other paleo-nerds, and it was not until the beginning of 2008 that I really got serious about my writing.

The event that catalyzed my metamorphosis into aspiring science writer I am now was Jennifer Ouellette’s keynote address at the second annual science blogging conference (now ScienceOnline). She spoke of her own blog as a kind of “writing lab” in which she was free to experiment with different ideas, and she also noted that if a writer wants to be taken seriously they will cut back on the superfluous LOLCat posts a bit. Those were probably the most important lessons that I took home from the conference, and so I made a conscious effort to transform Laelaps into a place where I could present the best of my science writing.

As I have gradually discovered, using Laelaps as a writing lab provided a number of benefits. Perhaps the most important was that it kept me in the habit of writing almost every day. In order to feed this blog I needed to find new stories, figure out how to tell them, and practice at becoming a better writer, all of which helped to keep up my motivation to write my book. In turn, my blog became an archive of my writing, and if I wanted to pick up a thread I let go some time ago I could simply run a search to find what I had already written and start working from there. This proved to be very useful during the book-writing process, especially when I needed to look up quotes or research I had previously mentioned on the blog.

But feedback from readers is also important. My interactions with readers over the past several years have constantly pushed me to improve my writing, and I have even tested out a few snippets from my book on this blog from time to time to see what people thought (though not since I actually signed with a publisher). Additionally, interacting daily with readers allows a writer to accumulate credibility within the science blogohedron and a regular following. As I will explain later in this post, these factors can be very important once a book hits the shelves.

So, while I have not always done so consciously, I have used this blog to improve my writing, test ideas, and build up a small following of interested readers. It has required a lot of work (I probably spend more time per post now than when I started blogging), but I must say that using this blog as a writing lab has been a success. And, when it comes to finding a home for your book, being an experienced blogger can have some important benefits.

The way people find and digest popular science is changing, and no one really knows what is going to happen next. What is apparent, however, is that any science writer who wants to survive is going to have to know how to navigate both the traditional publishing world and the mess of blogs, social networking sites, and other resources on the web. If you are an experienced science blogger then you are already one step ahead of many other writers; you have already established yourself within a community of people who are already interested in what you have to say. If you belong to a well-regarded blog collective or write a blog for a magazine (I also write Dinosaur Tracking for Smithsonian), so much the better, and as I said yesterday, make sure you note your blogging experience in your proposal.

Granted, keeping up a blog can be a bit of a drain during the book-writing process (some days I do not feel very much like blogging even though I know it is important to maintain my presence online), but regularly publishing polished samples of your writing can do a lot to enhance your reputation as a science writer. They may never comment, but editors, agents, and other science writers do read blogs, so if you are working on a book you definitely want to put your best work forward.

Indeed, as you write your blog you will almost certainly come into contact with other writers and people who are already established within science publishing. Many of these people want to see other science writers do well, and in my experience they have been very generous with their time and advice. They can also refer you to people who can help get your work published. I met my agent because I had asked another blogger (who had read my sample chapters) to mention my book to any agents he happened to meet. He said he didn’t know any at that moment, but not too long afterward he bumped into one and bigged up my book. Additionally, the “Ida” fracas last May sent my traffic through the roof, and among the people who surfed in was a literary agent who poked around the blog and saw that I was working on a book. By that time I had already signed with my agent, but it is another example of how blogs can create important opportunities for aspiring book authors. Do not be shy about your work. While I wouldn’t recommend posting the whole thing and saying “Ok, who wants to publish this?” it does pay to let people know what you are working on.

And then there is the matter of promotion. Even though the release of Written in Stone is still months away I plan on using this blog to organize events both online and offline. Much like David Williams did for Stories in Stone, I intend on running a blog book tour comprised of coordinated interviews and book reviews, and like Rebecca Skloot I am hoping to use this blog (as well as my Facebook and Twitter accounts) to organize events at museums, universities, and other venues. I will probably not do a true “book tour” (I just don’t have the money to take a month or two off to travel the country in the hopes that a handful of people will buy my book), but I will use this blog to connect with people who are interested in having me come speak and do my best to work out a way to get there. Obviously Michael and David can say more about blogs and book promotion than I can, though, so I hope they chime in with their own experiences.

Science blogging is what made Written in Stone possible. Had I not started science blogging I probably would have never gotten beyond page 10 of my manuscript before tossing the project aside. From simply getting myself into the habit of writing to connecting with experienced science writers, writing on the web has been an overwhelmingly positive experience, and for anyone else who is thinking about writing a pop-sci book I would say that it is never too early to start blogging.

[See Part 1 of this series here.]